“The Good Death”: Confronting Mortality in the Middle Ages and the Present

Death is the one universal, natural phenomenon which no one wants to talk about.  In this paper, I will be exploring anxieties about death in the middle ages and today. I believe that medieval death anxieties (and coping mechanisms) can say something about our present-day death culture. I will be using a largely historical approach, in order to understand medieval death culture through a survey of coping mechanisms, popular narratives, and common fears. My hope for this project is to understand why – if we understand death as a natural phenomenon – does it scare so many people, and how have these fears changed or stayed the same over time? In order to answer this question, I will be looking at medieval attitudes towards death historically and culturally. I will be using The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms as a primary source for the cultural attitudes towards death, as well as critical essays which analyze other cultural artifacts like transi tombs, ars moriendi, the Three Living and the Three Dead, Danse Macabre, revenants, and the double macabre portraits. I will be engaging with Dominique Deluca’s essay Bonum est Mortis Meditari: Meanings and Functions of the Medieval Double Macabre Portrait for an insight into cultural attitudes towards cultural artifacts like the double macabre portrait, and the anxieties that drove their reactions. I will also be using Kathleen Cohen’s Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol, which offers an analysis of the transi tombs as the manifestation of medieval death anxiety. It is difficult to talk about a universal attitude towards death in the middle ages because most of the funerary records and wills are from nobles, not common people. From what it is possible to know, it is obvious that medieval people felt a deep anxiety related to the religious implications of death. Because of this, people were often encouraged to contemplate death and therefore the afterlife. Today, we’ve retained some of the same fears and added new ones, but we no longer encourage conversations or contemplations on our mortality. Using a survey of medieval death culture with the Disputation between the Body and the Worms as a cornerstone, I hope to argue that medieval and contemporary anxieties about death result from a human exceptionalism that stems from a denial of nature.

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